This Saturday, Clarksville will host Tennessee’s first Pride festival of the season. Those that know me have seen the deer-staring-at-headlights look in my eyes for a while. As I write this, it’s just over a week before the festivities, and everything in me just wants to sit in a corner and just cry. Not that my mother would mind a few more phone calls. But there’s a festival to plan!
With Pride comes reflection in local and regional gay history. With this kind of reflection we begin to realize exactly how far we’ve really come. Even in the late 1980s, the gay community was met with a quiet disdain in this area. It was unspeakable. Even when someone was out, they were “that way,” or they’ll exaggerate the words “they’re GAY” with their mouths, but never utter the words; as if being gay were a horrible and unspeakable thing.
Equality was but a fickle dream in the minds of those “militant gay activists,” while Pride was only shown on TV as if they were a bunch of “perverted” leather boys or flaming drag queens shouting out their mantras from rainbow-regaled floats. Even then, we were more of a caricature than anything. Of course, no one like that EVER lived in Clarksville. It’s just a backwards little hick town, right?
In the last two years while serving on the Pride committee, I’ve met scores of people who were out and proud in Clarksville while I was still in elementary school. These were people that I never knew, and if we ever saw them, they were “one of those people,” whatever the hell that meant. Now, they wear their wrinkles and battle scars with badges of honor. Their stories, however, have been lost in the abyss of today’s twink clubs and bar scene.
One older gay couple recently told me how “brave” I was for being the point-man for everything related to Pride in this community. I don’t know if “brave” is the word I’d use for my activism. “Obligated” is probably more appropriate. For the last thirty-plus years, our local patriarchs… or is it divas… have endured the hate, bashings, murders, sick jokes, and AIDS deaths that most of us have either forgotten or ignored.
It wasn’t until I started working on last year’s Pride festival that I learned of them. Sure, I knew that kind of thing happened, but something happened in me when I started actually having conversations with them. I listened to their heartaches. Drag was the way to be gay in the South at the time. Either you did it or supported it. And in most cases, it was reserved only for the smoky beer bars that were on some back alley way.
That changed in 1979 when a small bar opened on Franklin Street in Clarksville. It wasn’t a back alleyway anymore. It was in the heart of downtown. They broke ground in a way that I never could. The bar wasn’t much. In spite of its mediocrity, it thrived for years.
As Pride day here in Clarksville rapidly approaches, I think it’s prudent to remember those who have paved the way for us. Sometimes those pioneers did a little, sometimes they paid for our freedoms with their blood. Just today, in fact, the Associated Press has reported that the California legislature has passed a gay history bill which allows GLBT history to be taught in public schools.
Finally, schools will have the opportunity to tell our stories – stories that until now have been buried into the realms of obscurity. I suppose that it will be a few years before such history is taught here in Tennessee. Until then, I’ll just have to settle for conversations with those who are older than I am. I’ll have to settle for asking the question, “What’s your story?”
I’m reminded of a scene out of the film Amistad, in which John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) asks Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) that very question. Joadson didn’t really know how to answer the aging former US President. Adams continued that Joadson, who was a fictitious character in the film, was an ex-slave who now owned an abolitionist newspaper and undoubtedly endured many trials to reach that point. That was his story.
What’s our story? Did it start with a gay pride festival in New York? Did it start with Stonewall? How about the Mattachine society? And if any of those things don’t ring a bell, then I encourage the reader to look them up. Google them, even. It’s been said that anyone who doesn’t know their history or their heritage will have no future. There’s a lot of truth in that statement.
At Clarksville Pride, we are as passionate about honoring our history as we are about making history. You’ll have a chance to see people who have impacted the city, state, and country with their work and activism. You’ll see plenty of your friends there too (especially if you carpool!). But more than anything, you’ll have fun.
And you’ll get to see me looking like a deer staring at headlights. Who could ask for better entertainment?
See you there!
— David W. Shelton